The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin mull whether democracy is worth saving

Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Democrats are now considering pushing negotiations over the Build Back Better package into next year and moving immediately to pass one or both of their voting rights bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

But getting either bill passed requires a carve-out of the filibuster, the procedural weapon Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) seem to hold in higher esteem than anything on their own policy agendas or even democracy itself.

Nevertheless, the door to reform may have cracked open a tiny bit. Sinema now says she wants the Senate to debate the filibuster — as though we haven’t been debating it for a year and there might be some arguments no one has yet considered. But at least she wants to talk about it.

More troublingly, she’s still repeating a terrible argument for the filibuster. Her spokesperson warned that whatever Democrats pass into law could be “rescinded in a few years and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law, nationwide restrictions on vote-by-mail, or other voting restrictions currently passing in some states extended nationwide.”

In other words, if Democrats are permitted to pass legislation, that would mean someday Republicans could pass legislation if they’re in charge. Which would mean Congress should simply never do anything.

But even if your heart warms at the thought of putting Congress into an indefinite legislative coma, we face an urgent problem right now, one that can’t wait. Republicans around the country are waging war on democracy, not only passing voter suppression bills but, even more dangerously, moving to make it impossible for them to lose elections, no matter the will of the voters.

It’s a three-pronged attack: wielding suppression measures to make it harder for people likely to be Democrats to vote; drawing district lines so Republicans always control state legislatures and have a disproportionate advantage in Congress; and seizing control of voting administration to make it possible to declare Republicans the winners even when they lose.

All of which is why voting legislation is in a different class from other kinds of bills, and demands a different approach, even if you’re still devoted to maintaining the filibuster for most legislation.

To understand why, consider the 10 Republican votes you’ll need to overcome any filibuster in a 50-50 Senate.

On rare occasions — as with the recently passed infrastructure bill — 10 Republicans will see it in their own interest to allow a bill to pass, even if President Biden might get a bit of credit for it. The debt ceiling is another example: Ten Republicans didn’t want to send the U.S. economy spiraling into recession, or didn’t want to see their party blamed for it, so they agreed to a procedural do-si-do that allowed Democrats to increase the ceiling on a majority vote.

But there is no bill that secures voting rights and majority rule that 10 Republicans will accept.

You can offer all the paeans to bipartisanship that you want, but that is a simple fact. It isn’t just that nearly every Republican will vote against those two voting bills. (Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska supports the John Lewis bill, but she is alone.) It’s that their party has put a commitment to minority rule, and the Trumpist belief that elections must not proceed fairly if it means a Democrat might win, at the absolute center of their identity.

They will not be moved from this position. There is no symmetry between the stances of the parties, and no compromise that can be reached. One party is trying to secure free and fair elections even if it means they’ll lose a good part of the time, and the other party is committed to nothing less than the destruction of American democracy.

Which leaves Democrats with two choices: alter the filibuster to pass legislation that pushes back on the GOP war on democracy, or sit back and watch while the pieces are systematically put in place for Republicans to steal the 2024 election, if necessary by having GOP legislatures in swing states simply declare Donald Trump the victor no matter what the voters want.

So Sinema can say she supports measures to secure democracy, but if she doesn’t favor a filibuster carve-out that allows them an up-or-down vote, then she doesn’t. You can’t say you “support” a bill when you’re actively thwarting its passage, any more than I could say “I support you getting to work on time today” if I’ve stolen your car keys and slashed your tires.

For all the work that has gone into the Build Back Better bill, many Democrats now say that voting legislation is the higher priority for the moment, and momentum is building for some kind of filibuster carve-out. In the past few days, Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) have called for changing the filibuster to protect voting rights.

As for Manchin and Sinema, the most optimistic take is that they’ll be willing to sign on to some kind of filibuster workaround for these bills, but only after a protracted public process that makes clear they didn’t just suddenly change their minds.

If that’s what it takes, so be it. If they put it off much longer, there might not be a democracy left to save.